Dear Blog Readers –
I am trying to whip off this post while flying from Lisbon back to Rome after five days in the town of Fatima, Portugal. I am so zonked I won’t get it done if I don’t finish it in this 3 hour window of opportunity.
Associated Press Television sent me at the last minute to replace my colleague AP Television’s Rome Senior Producer Maria Grazia Murru. Maria Grazia slipped on her motorino on wet cobblestones (San Pietrini) in Piazza Venezia last Monday evening as she was heading home from work. The motorino fell on top of her and shattered a bone under her knee. For those readers who know her, please send her messages of support and encouragement.
So, I found myself headed for Lisbon to join our team covering the Pope’s visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. AP’s Lisbon-based video-journalist, Helena Alves, Pietro De Cristofaro, Berlin based video journalist, and Portuguese photographer Armando Franca were waiting for me at the airport with traditional Portuguese pasteis de nata pastries (yum!)
As we drove off from the airport in between rain showers a double rainbow appeared along the side of the highway. “It is a miracle!” I declared enthusiastically, getting into the Fatima spirit. Perhaps it was the sugar high from the pasteis.
We drove for an hour and a half through the Portuguese countryside with woods, rolling hills and vineyards. It looked a bit like Tuscany to me but it was hard to enjoy because Pietro was driving like he was on the German autobahn while Helena and I were in the back trying to edit the just-released Pope’s video message for the Portuguese people on his upcoming visit.
We sat side by side on the back seat of the station wagon with our lap-top computerss open, Helena editing, and I was writing. We passed memory sticks and mifis back and forth as we worked while insulting Pietro on his driving and eating pasteis.
Getting closer to the town of Fatima we could see the tents and campers of pilgrims gathering for the big event. Helena announced that our AP editors had suggested she rent a big camper for all of us to stay in for the week and we all groaned. Just looking at the line up of bright orange porta-potties was enough to convince any of us that a camper for the AP team would have been a bad idea.
At the entrance to the town of Fatima there is a big statue of three shepherd children Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia and a few sheep making their way up a slope and staring upwards.
One hundred years ago, on May 13, 1917, these three shepherd children began seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the sky. According to a description provided by the Vatican “Suddenly they saw a great light. Thinking it was lightning, they decided to leave. But then there was another light that lit up the whole area and they saw above the little oak tree “a lady more splendid than the sun” with a white rosary hanging from her hands.
The lady gave the children various messages that came to be known as the “three secrets of Fatima.”
Among the purported secrets was a prediction of World War II, the rise of Soviet Communism and the attempted assassination of John Paul II. The Virgin also urged the children to “pray for peace,” a fitting message given that Europe was in the midst of World War I.
The Virgin began appearing to them on the 13th of every month and eventually the children reported that the she was promising a “miracle” on October 13, 1917. Tens of thousands of people joined the children on the hillside that day and witnessed what has been described as the “miracle of the sun” with the sun spinning around in the sky.
Pope Francis decided to come to Fatima to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first visions and to canonize (make Saints) of two of the three shepherd children, Jacinta and Francisco Marto.
For those readers who are not up on Catholic rites, in order for someone to become a saint, two miracles, approved by a commission of medical experts and then by the Pope, are necessary. In this case a miracle involving a Brazilian boy pushed the Marto shepherd children over the top.
In 2013, the five-year-old boy fell from a 6.5 meter (21 feet) high window. He severely damaged his head and doctors predicted that he would remain in coma or have severe mental damage. His parents, Joao Baptista and Lucial Yurie, prayed to the shepherd children for a miracle. Lucas survived and had no after effects.
All this talk of miracles had my head spinning by the time we got to Fatima and found the AP rental apartment. I woke up early the next morning and stepped out on the apartment’s balcony to see a rainbow stretched out over the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima. I wondered if I might start seeing a Virgin and getting some secret messages myself before the end of the week.
A few hours later, I found myself with Pietro wandering around the huge esplanade that is at the center of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima trying to talk to some people and film some color for our set-up story. At one end is the Basilica, a traditional looking church holding the tombs of the shepherd children. About halfway down is the Chapel of the Apparitions that houses the Statue of Our Lady of Fatima. It was built on the spot where the Virgin appeared.
Next to the Chapel is a large black fire pit with big orange flames and clouds of smoke billowing over the top. Pilgrims of all ages were flocking into the area heading for the Chapel. I was surprised to see so many plodding along on their knees carrying candles, rosaries and roses. Pilgrims sat and prayed before the statue, many wiping tears from their eyes. I couldn’t imagine what terrible experiences they had had or what miracles they were praying for.
Many of the pilgrims on their knees were making their way around the chapel and towards the big flames. It was not until later that I learned that pilgrims thanking the Virgin for a miracle cure throw beeswax body parts into the flames. AP Vatican Correspondent, Nicole Winfield, later did a little shopping in Fatima and brought back some wax items to be tossed to the flames – a knee for Maria Grazia, eyes for Paolo who has a detached retina—and a few extras – hands, hearts etc. You never know.
While wandering around the piazza I met Elisabete Fradique Conceicao who explained to us that her grandparents had been at the “miracle of the sun” event 100 years ago and she had spent her life listening to her grandmother describe it. She threw her arms up in the air and made wind-mill circles with them as she said, “My grandmother told me that the sun began rounding, rounding, going round like this, and petals that were part of the flowers were coming down until they were one meter from her head and then they were disappearing.” She concluded saying that her grandfather was standing right next to her grandmother but he didn’t see anything.
“I guess you just gotta believe,” I suggested. Elisabete burst out laughing. “Yes, you have to believe.”
It was starting to rain again (water, not petals) so Pietro and I headed back to the press tent at the side of the sanctuary to edit. It was not until then that I realized the falling rose petals are a part of the Fatima story and tradition.
Throughout the day the sanctuary filled up with pilgrims. They camped out along the barriers where Pope Francis would pass in the Popemobile. They had foldout chairs, ponchos, umbrellas, rosaries, photos of the Virgin, food supplies, and blankets. I admired their stamina. The idea of spending the night outside in the rain and cold to get a front row seat at a canonization mass was not appealing to me.
Our operation continued to gear up as we got closer to the Pope’s arrival. A two person freelance TV crew joined us to cover the Pope’s arrival at the airport, another photographer came from Porto, and an engineer set up a satellite truck so we could put out all the images live. Nicole was on the papal plane along with AP Rome photographer Alessandra Tarantino. AP wire correspondent Barry Hatton was writing from the Lisbon bureau. Altogether AP had 11 people working on the Pope’s visit to Fatima.
Mid-afternoon on Friday the Pope’s plane touched down and the hundreds of thousands of people in the crowd viewing on wide screens went wild. He boarded a helicopter and we all watched as his helicopter was followed by another one with a TV camera broadcasting the last leg of his journey to the sanctuary.
The large Portuguese military helicopter carrying the Pope swooped down over the sanctuary circling it twice – hundreds of thousands of hands and cell phones shot up into the air as the crowd waved and photographed the Pope. Later I was given the video from Vatican TV of the Pope sitting in the helicopter looking down at this immense crowd and waving back. Eventually he made his grand entrance into the sanctuary aboard the Popemobile. The pilgrims cheered and threw rose petals at him. One rose petal got stuck on the windshield of the popemobile and remained there throughout the ride.
Over the years, I have noticed that the Catholic Church knows how to put on a good spectacle. They have a knack for pomp and pageantry. Whether it is a Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Way of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum, a Papal Funeral in St. Peter’s Square, or a Canonization Mass and Centenary Event at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, the Church puts on a magnificent, visually evocative show. The costumes (just think Swiss Guards), the flowers, the candles, the tearful pilgrims, the nuns in black, the crowned statue born on a pile of virginal white roses….it works for TV.
I should add that I am rather grateful to the Catholic Church and the Vatican. I think AP Rome would have a bureau about half the size of the current one if it were not for so much coverage of the Vatican and the Popes.
First stop for Pope Francis was the Chapel of the Apparitions where he prayed in front of the Statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
The Statue is a fair maiden with rose-colored cheeks and sweet eyes. Her head is bent forward under a heavy-looking gold crown. Her hands are joined in prayer and a rosary hangs around them. Pope John Paul II credited Our Lady of Fatima for re-directing the bullet and saving his life when a gunman tried to assassinate him on her feast day May 13, 1981. That bullet is now in the crown of the statue.
Like the pilgrims, Pope Francis also had a rose for Our Lady, but his was a gold rose. He left it at the base of the statue. Apparently only Popes are allowed to give gold roses to statues of the Virgin at Marian Shrines.
Francis pronounced a prayer in the chapel that was perhaps the most “political” of his comments in his 24 hours in Fatima. He said, “we will follow all paths and everywhere make our pilgrim way; we will tear down all walls and cross every frontier, as we go out to every periphery, to make known God’s justice and peace.”
For those of us who cover Pope Francis those comments were nothing new. This Pope is the man who speaks regularly of building bridges and not walls and makes it his mission to go to the world’s “peripheries”. I heard him make those comments on his visit to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico on the US Mexican border. I covered his trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories where he stopped and prayed in front of the barrier wall, and have witnessed his efforts on behalf of the homeless, migrants and prisoners.
Interestingly, on May 24th he will be meeting US President Donald Trump at the Vatican. Trump takes a diametrically opposed view on walls and frontiers. (More on that in a minute).
The Pope was back in the evening for an evocative candle-lit service in the Chapel of the Apparitions. While he was eating dinner in the nearby house of “Nossa Senhora do Carmo”, the hundreds of thousands of people in the esplanade were given candles with wax paper protective holders and by the time Pope Francis came back wearing a long, warm coat the esplanade was glowing with spots of light.
When the Pope headed off to bed, I thought it was all over, but no….the show was just beginning. The statue of Our Lady of Fatima, on her large gold base covered with white roses, was hoisted up into the air carried by a group of eight bearers and paraded through the esplanade and up to the sanctuary.
Saturday morning, the final event of the visit was the canonization mass for Francisco and Jacinta Marto. The two children were ages 7 and 10 at the time of the apparitions. They both died two years later of Spanish Influenza. Their cousin, the third shepherd, Lucia, became a nun and lived until 2005. She is on track to be beatified.
During the long canonization ceremony Helena was stuck in a position for camerapersons and photographers close to the altar, I was recording the live pool and writing in the press center together with Nicole. At one point during the four-hour event I stepped out to find some people in the crowd to interview. I found an Irish woman names Agnes Walsh from Killarney, Ireland. She told me that the canonization of the little shepherd boy Francisco was the answer to her prayers. She said she has four daughters and since 1997, when they were little, she was praying that they would find nice boys like Francisco. Now they have grown up and all four have “nice boys”. So there Agnes was thanking Francisco for answering her prayers.
I wondered if I might ask little Francisco if he could start working on some nice boys for my two daughters, and maybe his sister Jacinta could line up a nice girl for my son, but before I could get carried away with that I remembered my priority was to go with Nicole to throw the wax knee she had bought for Maria Grazia into the wax limb melting fire pit.
Once the four-hour canonization mass ended there was a last little tradition that I was not familiar with. It was a bit like the candles…suddenly white handkerchiefs appeared in the hands of every person in the square. Up on the altar the Pope, the Monsignors, the Cardinals, the Bishops, the priests were all clinging to white handkerchiefs. The bearers raised the Statue of Our Lady of Fatima back up onto their shoulders and as a beautiful, melancholy song was blasted out on the loudspeakers, hundreds of thousands of people waved their white hankies at the sweet-faced statue.
After he waved farewell to Our Lady of Fatima, the Pope departed for the airport and just as his plane was taking off a huge downpour soaked the sanctuary, gusts of wind left the press tent shuddering. We all joked that Our Lady of Fatima was shedding tears for the Pope’s departure. A few photographers got up to check and make sure they were not red raindrops or rose petals falling from the sky.
I was not on the Papal plane for this trip but on the way back the topic for the press conference on the plane quickly turned from Fatima to the upcoming visit of President Donald Trump on May 24th.
When asked what he intends to discuss with Trump, the Pope said,
“Whatever the topic or whoever is in front of me, whoever that person may be, it’s peace.”
Despite their well-documented differences of opinion, the Pope said he was not going to make any advance judgments about the US President.
“I never make a judgment about a person without listening to them. I don’t think I should do that. During our talks things will come out, I will say what I think and he will say what he thinks but I have never, never, wanted to judge a person before hearing what they have to say,” he said.
More on the upcoming Trump-Pope meeting soon.